This tantalisingly brief piece in the Preston Guardian of 14 March 1846 caught my attention as I was searching for something else.
The relative lack of detail made me wonder if it was a fictional piece – the Victorian press were not strangers to making up the odd story, or embellishing the basics of a true one to make a better piece.
A woman gnawing her baby to death? Surely not.
But then I searched a bit more, and realised that this was, sadly, only too true (although a few parts of the Preston Guardian‘s story are incorrect, or based on later events).
It was a tale of poverty, and of a woman driven literally mad by the effects of childbirth.
Mary Ann Dinah King, the woman in question, was a mother of three. She was born in December 1822 at Union Street in Lambeth, the daughter of Joseph Lyons, a hawker, and his wife Amelia.
On 16 March 1841, aged 18, she married John King at St Mary’s in Lambeth. She had not been known to have any mental issues until she gave birth to her first child, and, within a short period of time, had become pregnant with twins.
By the beginning of 1846, Mary Ann was living at her parents’ house on Chester Street in Kennington – her husband absent or dead.
On 24 January 1846, she gave birth there, to a boy and a girl, both healthy. She named them James and Catherine Mary Ann. All three appeared to be doing well, until the evening of 31 January.
Mary Ann had been in bed at her parents’ house that night, when she suddenly started up, grabbed the little boy, and beat him around the head.
Her mother, Amelia Lyons, ran to her, but by the time she got to the baby, Mary Ann had started to bite at his face. Blood was pouring from little James’s head.
Amelia screamed for her husband, Joseph, who ran up to the room, but by this point, Mary Ann had chewed through James’s nose and cheek. She was leaning on her son, her mouth still attached to his face, and would not let go until her father pinched her nose tightly and she had to breathe.
James was covered in blood. Mary Ann’s face and mouth were smeared with it. The shock and horror that Mary Ann’s parents – little James’s grandparents – must have felt is clear.
Amazingly, James survived for nearly a month, gradually becoming weak and exhausted, before dying on 25 February.
A coroner’s inquest was held at the Fountain Tavern on Walworth Road in Kennington at the beginning of March, where the coroner, William Carter, and 14 local householders gathered to hear the horrifying story.
The householders returned a verdict of wilful murder against Mary Ann. She, meanwhile, had, since the attack, been committed to the lunatic ward of the parish workhouse*.
She was indicted for trial at the Central Criminal Court, but when her case was held on 2 April, the jury found that she was clearly unfit to plead, being of unsound mind.
The brief details of Mary Ann’s case, taken from the Old Bailey Proceedings.
What happened to Mary Ann afterwards? It does not appear that she regained her senses; her actions were those of a woman who had lost contact with reality and it is hard to see how she could come back from that awful night.
- Details found via Free BMD, Ancestry.co.uk, Preston Guardian and The Era.
- * One report stated that Mary Ann was in the lunatic ward of Newington workhouse, but she was living at her parents’ house in Kennington, which came under the Lambeth Poor Law Union, rather than the Newington PLU, and so it is possible she was actually sent there.
- Mary Ann’s oldest child, not mentioned by name in press reports, may have been Amelia, born in Lambeth early in 1842.